Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Apprentice Australia - Episode 1 review, RWA: Foundation & Force

Summary - an introduction to a series of blog posts that I'll be writing about episodes of the TV series, The Apprentice Australia. Each will include Real-World Applications (RWAs), so you don't have to watch the TV series, or even be in Australia, to benefit from the insights on offer.

The Apprentice Australia kicked off last night. In the next few weeks I'll post a series of comments on the series. I think there's a danger in presenting, as this series can do, primarily the negative and emotionally reactive side of human behaviour in organizations. While it makes for "good" TV, I think it can also have a depressing effect on viewers who may conclude that people are pretty much rubbish all the time and there's not much to be done about it.

I therefore want to use The Apprentice Australia episodes as behavioural "case studies" and, acting in the role of shadow external consultant or coach, offer a useful counterbalance as I share my hypotheses on the group dynamics and individual personality preferences.

I'll going to suggest some ways that things could go differently and more productively if, instead of being in the decidedly unreal world of "reality TV", these people's behaviour were taking place in a real team, in the real world. Each post will therefore offer a Real World Application that you can use even if you don't follow the series or are not in Australia.

The Apprentice format

As anyone who's watched the series in the US or UK will know, the interview process used to find a new Apprentice is necessarily artificial and made-for-"reality"-TV.

Contestants are typically given short timelines to accomplish very broadly-defined tasks, all with the same goal: make maximum cash. For the losing team, it's back to the Boardroom where the knives come out and someone's sent home. In other words, these are "teams" in name only, since in reality each participant looks out for him/herself.

Welcome to the corporate dogfight pit.

Now, reality TV shows are rarely instructive. So are there any lessons about human behaviour that we as viewers of The Apprentice can learn and relate to our own workplace on a daily basis?

Well I think there are. Despite the artifice of the show, it does offer a prime example of what happens when high-pressure scenarios trigger reactive emotional responses and actions that are not well adapted to the other words, really pretty rubbish and childish behaviour.

The Battle inside your Brain - balance or blowout?

Moment by moment there is a battle being waged inside your brain. Your limbic system (emotional: fast, reactive, habitual) is producing knee-jerk impulses driven by the survival instinct, while your cortical system (cognitive: reasoning, reflective, considerate) is doing its best to apply your brain's vast ability for mental processing to the effort to modulate, consider and channel this tremendous emotional energy into productive and adaptive behaviours.

Or to put it another way: you've got a fast-acting part of you that's a bit like an impulsive child, and a slower, wiser part of you that guides you toward making the smart move...but can often be subverted in times of high stress and perceived threat. Balance is the key; blowouts can also results. The Apprentice interview format specializes in scenarios geared to produce more blowouts than balance, as this week's episode has already shown...

Episode 1 review

This week we were introduced to all 12 contestants along with the Boss, Australian businessman Mark Bouris, and his two advisors in the series, Diane Stone and Brad Seymour.

As a relatively new arrival in Australia I'm not familiar with the track record of either Mr. Bouris or his advisors (one an ex-footie player, the other his PA). So in this post I'll just look at what happened with the losing team and who heard the famous phrase, "You're fired!"

Let me set some context. In this series of posts I'll not make any predictions about who will be the winner. This is because practically speaking, it's impossible to tell which person has the "right" traits and personality preferences to win the competition, because "right" (in terms of adaptive and effective, producing the desired outcome) will vary tremendously according to any number of factors, including:
  • makeup of the team - and as a function of that, quality of reactions/interactions with other team members
  • degree to which the person's talents and abilities (to the degree he/she can successfully deploy them) are a good match for the task undertaken; not everyone's cut out for every type of task, and it's in these situations when the team must pull together and complement each other's skills
  • seeing someone's "intro" interview tells you very little about how they will cope under real pressure; what's key is their ability to self-manage and stay focused/productive when faced with real-life dramas
  • and many other variables...people are complex adaptive creatures so making predictions based on extrapolation of a few data points is nearly impossible
An additional, decisive variable is that the choice of who stays and who goes ultimately rests with Mr. Bouris, who will not directly observe contestants' behaviour during the tasks (depending on his advisors for second-hand information). He will make his decisions based almost exclusively on behaviour he sees in the Boardroom - a high-pressure, politically-charged, personally threatening and therefore survival-mode-triggering setting.

Moving on to assess this week's results, I would argue that it was a lack of political savvy that cost Jane her spot in the competition and saved Carmen from certain elimination for her incompetence as project leader.

Carmen's leadership style is a classic example of Commanding/Coercive, a style that demands immediate compliance and says, "Do what I tell you to do." Furthermore,
If a leader always and only uses only the commanding/coercive style, the overall impact on organizational climate will be negative. While the team will feel the pressure and drive to complete tasks, there is a risk they will ultimately feel alienated and uninvolved by the coercive leader's tendency to create the entire plan without any input from others, then expect others to follow and not ask questions.
Carmen's own awareness of her style and impact on others is minimal. She tended to steamroll others with a powerful ego and drive - one that unfortunately for her is not paired with little self-awareness of how she comes across to other people.

When queried on how things went with one task, for example, she replied that she "put on my power hat" and charged through to an outcome. This is illustrative of her emotional reactive (limbic) style: focused on Power, with her as Protector and taking any dissent, criticism or rejection as an excuse for aggression and revenge. Asked in the Boardroom by Mr. Bouris how she performed as project lead, she confidently stated: "Extremely well!"...which occasioned immediate looks of surprise and disagreement from her team, and tears from her.

Carmen honestly felt that she was driving ahead for the greater good of the team and must have felt betrayed by the sudden realization that they did not see, or value, her role in the same way. This dose of reality for her was as unexpected as it was unwelcome and hurtful. Here we could see some of the vulnerability that her hard outer shell and relentless drive is meant to keep hidden from others.

Nevertheless, the facts are as follows: as project lead Carmen charged ahead with little consultation with her team, poor understanding of the task, grossly underestimated the work required for the projects, underquoted on the projects and then - abandoning all integrity and accountability to the client - tried an 11th hour renegotiation when it was clear that they would struggle to deliver the agreed project on time. These factors, particularly the underquoting, cost her team the victory.

In his assessment of the girls' team, Mr. Bouris accurately observed, "as a team you are completely dysfunctional." Despite the clear evidence for why this was so, he chose not to hold Carmen as team leader accountable. Instead, he placed the responsibility on the team: "right now there's no accountability, it's all down to the project manager, she was too bossy and told us what to do," and further, "there's no room in my organization for a shrinking violet."

On this basis - largely, I would say, based on the single exchange that took place between Carmen and Jane in the Boardroom, Jane was fired, for allegedly not "using her additional experience to hold Carmen to task."

So the lessons from this week's Boardroom:
  • charging ahead and doing lots of things (even if quite badly) is less harmful to your survival chances than being more considered and less combative, and
  • the implicit message of Mr. Bouris's decision to fire Jane not Carmen: when it comes to accountability, leaders don't make mistakes in my organization, underlings do...and will take the fall for it (take note, future Apprentice!)
I've written elsewhere about the need for balance between bold action and considered planning. Popular wisdom provides phrases in favour of both functions, so that while "Fortune favours the bold" and "He who hesitates is lost" are sometimes true, there's also the fact (as this week with Carmen's team) that she should have "Looked before she leaped" into underquoting jobs and she ought to have "Measured twice, cut once" when it came to assessing how much work was truly involved with each project.

Instead, Carmen's team was unified only in stating there was no plan or strategy in place. To paraphrase Canadian political economist and humourist Stephen Leacock, as leader Carmen just "flung herself upon her horse and rode madly off in all directions."

Real-World Application (RWA)

What sort of behaviour is most often rewarded in your organization?
  1. Is there a bias for action over planning, with the result that you sometimes put a lot of effort into something only to discover you've headed off in the wrong direction to begin with and that effort is now wasted?
  2. Or is there a great tendency to plan and "strategize" endlessly, awaiting new data and ensuring all available information is gathered and options are explored...resulting only in analysis paralysis and inactivity?
To create high performance teams and ensure effective execution on strategy, it's vital to strike the right balance between Role and Reward:

ROLE you do successfully by A) establishing a sense of community (with shared values, a code of conduct, and understanding of how the group adds value in a wider context), and B) letting people know how and where each individual fits into the larger group. Clarify the roles, goals and expectations so that each person's individual efforts are contributing to the group objectives and goals. Build a solid, agreed-upon foundation at the outset to provide an underlying source of enduring continuity in the face of transition, change and even crisis periods to come.

REWARD is about motivation, action and reward - the drive to achievement that comes from the healthy expression of ego and answers the question "what's in it for me?" to tap into the passion and drive of each team member. It is results-focused and promotes action over words, performance over process. To keep people on track and productive, it's important to phrase performance measures in positive language that motivates, rather than coercive language that triggers emotional reactivity and fearful anxiety. This step is about getting things done, the achievement of aspirations.

Look for Monday's post, when I'll provide insights on the remaining 11 contestants - what to watch for in Monday night's episode as their mettle continues to be tested and their personality preferences and reactive styles come to the fore.

1 comment:

Zane said...

Great post Todd, really enjoyed the read. Look forward to the analysis of next weeks episode.